The Tragedy of Mister Morn
By Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov wrote this drama when he was 24, and, surprising to no one, it’s not your typical written-at-twentysomething piece. A jam-packed five-act verse play in Shakespearean pentameter, it’s as ambitious thematically as it is stylistically: it’s an inquest into the Soviet regime’s appetite for destruction threaded with complex romantic relationships. Morn remained unpublished until 1997, and untranslated into English until now. Thomas Karshan and Anastasia Tolstoy adapted a loose five-stress line, and assure the reader in the introduction that the language is “as peculiar and distinctive in Russian as in our translation.”
The play commences with—and hinges upon—the unexpected homecoming of the banished Ganus, which sets off a tangled love triangle followed by troubling political upheaval. Ganus arrives at his friend Tremens’s home, and the two, once allies, now argue from opposite ends of the political spectrum: the former seeks peace; the latter, revolution and destruction. Their debate takes on prescience when Ganus’s actions unwittingly enable the roguish Tremens to seize power (“look into my eyes, as if into a grave,” Tremens says pitilessly). In the concluding act, a character states that authority shouldn’t lay in the hands of one representative, for “a nation is a bodiless divinity.”
Though very much a political play, the emotionally realist romances bear serious weight. Ganus inquires after his erstwhile wife Midia; he slips into a soirée she is having, disguised as an actor playing Othello (as jealous husbands do!) to observe her undetected. Midia, who has not heard from Ganus in four years, has in fact taken up with Morn, the secret king. When Ganus reveals his identity, he and Morn vow to duel for Midia’s love via a game of cards. Ganus, thanks to a sleight of hand discreetly performed by Tremens, is the victor, thus sentencing Morn to his death. Morn, reluctant to die, oscillates between frantic desperation (“I must abandon my kingdom, must jump from the throne to death… all because I kissed a shallow woman and struck a foolish adversary!”) and a sense of duty (“greet death with an immortal cry and gallop headlong through the sky into heaven’s yard”). Ultimately, he decides he cannot pull the trigger (“how many times have I pressed door handles, the buttons of doorbells…” he marvels of his paralysis). Ceding his sovereignty, he flees in the night with Midia, leaving dire consequences in his wake.
Throughout the play, the language is dense and sometimes awkward, as the translators warned. Nabokov comments on the political furor of the state, using characters as ideological symbols and metaphor-spouting mouthpieces. However, he ascribes to relationships their proper delicacy. When Midia confronts an enraged Ganus about moving on in his absence, she says contritely, “Your things spoke to me, they smelled of you… But gradually my memory lost its warmth… finally translucent, you left my heart on tiptoe.” When things sour with Morn, Midia describes the dissolution of their relationship: “we’ve crossed from a fairytale to the most banal reality.” Be it politics or intimate relationships, Nabokov effectively depicts how quickly passion turns to oblivion.